Recently, on LinkedIn, a heartfelt nurse colleague wrote that a nurse had posted something so painfully wrong-headed that she just had to respond. The nurse had written that nursing is not a career; it’s a calling and that any nurse who leaves the bedside is committing murder against patients.

This shocking statement belies a sentiment that all too many nurses walk the earth feeling: that they must sacrifice everything for patients, even their health and peace of mind.

Martyrdom is a root cause of many nurses’ experiences of burnout and compassion fatigue. We must overcome such misguided views of nursing to elevate our profession — and one another — into a brighter and healthier future.

Nurse martyrdom is nothing new. With nurses often referred to as saints, angels, and heroes, it’s no wonder we easily fall into the trap of needing to live up to such superhuman expectations.

These labels do us no good, and nurse martyrs help no one. We’re not heroes, saints, or angels — we’re human beings with the same flaws and problems as anyone else, and we have a job. While that job may often feel like a calling to many of us, no one should feel the need to insist that a calling should also be a yoke across our shoulders and a heavy cross to bear that can’t be put down.

Nurse martyrs may experience secondary gain for seeing themselves as self-sacrificing warriors. Still, they’re hurting themselves by buying into the belief that their needs and well-being should be sacrificed for their perceived “calling.”

The nurse martyr runs a great risk of burnout, compassion fatigue, resentment, unhappiness, and dissatisfaction. The old cliché of putting on one’s oxygen mask before helping others with theirs is an apt cliché for a reason: it’s imperative for healers also to heal themselves, or their efforts will ultimately fail someone along the way, including themselves.

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The Martyr’s Badge of Honor

The nursing profession was built upon a foundation of Florence Nightingale’s teachings and the myth of “The Lady of the Lamp.” The vision of the nurse as a saintly caregiver to the sick and dying created a vision that we were somehow angelic, unaffected by the world around us.

But this vision is far from the truth. Nurses are mired in the blood, guts, feces, urine, and vomit of the ill and dying. We’re there when patients are at their worst, and we absorb the anger, sadness, and tragedy of the human condition.

Unfortunately, nurses endure the highest levels of on-the-job injury  of any profession in the U.S., including law enforcement and construction. And workplace violence — including assault — is experienced at significantly greater levels by nurses.

Could these factors contribute to the fostering of a culture of martyrdom? Absolutely. But so can the culture of nurses wearing these insults, injuries, and risks as a martyr’s badge of honor. Does this serve nurses, individually and collectively? It may buy some sympathy and provide some other secondary gain, but it’s an unhealthy paradigm that must be changed.

Throw Down the Shackles

Returning to the LinkedIn post mentioned above, the notion that nursing is not a career but a calling is false and misleading. Nursing is a professional career that millions choose to embrace, and as a career, it puts food on the table and a roof over the heads of numerous families.

Some of us may feel “called” to nursing, but we still want to be paid for our work, and hopefully, most of us don’t want to sacrifice our well-being for a job, no matter how noble it might seem to those on the outside.

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Sacrifice involves many occupations, including time away from family, missing special occasions and holidays, or occupational hazards. Police, paramedics, EMTs, and firefighters risk their lives daily, as do construction workers who walk rickety scaffolding or naked beams forty floors above the street.

Nurse martyrdom is like self-imposed shackles that weigh us down and keep us tethered to an old paradigm of the nurse as a self-sacrificing saint and angel. We don’t need those shackles, nor do we need angel wings that are themselves a form of shackle.

Instead, we need to be seen — and to see ourselves — as human beings who go to school, learn a challenging and risk-filled occupation, work hard, and go home to our families.

Let’s throw down the shackles, shake off the yoke, and cast away the cross weighing us down. Even for those who feel that our occupation is a true calling, we can still practice diligent self-care, maintain firm boundaries, and recognize the equal importance of our needs.

Nursing can be a very fulfilling profession, but no one should feel the need to practice in a way that demands the wearing of the martyr’s crown. It’s unhealthy, wholly unnecessary, and a recipe for burnout and unhappiness.

We nurses deserve to be happy and satisfied, and we also deserve to go home to our families intact, content, and without strings attached to the job we left behind. And if we decide to leave the bedside, we’re not committing murder against patients — instead, we’re making a decision that is best for us, our lives, our families, and our well-being. We deserve no less.

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Keith Carlson
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